The Microbiome Underfoot and the Importance of Soil Health

The Microbiome Underfoot and the Importance of Soil Health

The soil microbiome is crucial to our food future and global food security. It demands our attention in regards to both human health and the health of our planet. If we continue to degrade the earth’s arable land at our current pace, then the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 may become insurmountable. By supporting the soil microbiome, we can sustain long-term farming yields and thereby incomes, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and potentially sequester additional CO2), and reduce farm runoff into rivers and lakes.

What Food Tech Innovations Have Real Potential to Change Our Food System

What Food Tech Innovations Have Real Potential to Change Our Food System

We look at which innovations in technology have potential to change our food system, and which ones might be more about novelty than sustainability. Considering diverse technologies ranging from blockchain to 3D printed food, it is important to consider which will cultivate a sustainable and productive food system.

Solving for Sustainability: The No Bullsh*t Kind | Panel Recap

Solving for Sustainability: The No Bullsh*t Kind | Panel Recap

It seems as though everyone is talking about sustainability, but what does it really mean when it comes to creating a better food system? Our founder, Shen Tong, discussed sustainability on the Solving for Sustainability panel produced by Seeds & Chips at the Summer Fancy Food Show. Moderated by Ayesha Vera-Yu of Advancement for Rural Kids, other panelists included Mary Cleaver of The Green Table | Cleaver Co, Steffen Schneider of Hawthorne Valley Farm, and Liz Vaknin of Our Name is Farm.

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On Making Sustainability Personal

“To spread sustainability, we have to make it personal,” Shen says. “I became interested in healthy food when I became a father. I want to feed my children tasty, clean, healthy, and nutritious food.”

Food is the most direct democracy. In 2016, the top 10 food companies controlled over 90% of food production in Western industrial countries, but their top sales dropped $18 billion since 2009. That’s a behavior change among consumers. We can support that change by providing the healthy and sustainable food people are demanding.

On Industrial Chemical Farming

Only three main chemical companies supply 60% of seeds purchased by farmers around the globe, and the consolidation of these companies is damaging our food systems. Domestically, we’re seeing negative impacts on our health along with a loss of diversity in our food supply. On a global scale, food costs are rising. What alternatives are there to industrial chemical farming?

Many of the panelists agreed that storytelling and education are essential in changing consumer habits for the better. Ayesha stated that consumers have been conditioned to expect low prices as a result of government subsidies, and these artificially low prices come at a cost to small farmers. Liz added that “We need to tell the story of why [good food] is costing more money and why you should spend more. It is a problem unique to the US that people are willing to pay more for higher quality products except when it comes to food.” Jeffen urged individuals to become aware of their own agency as daily food consumers. Similarly, Shen expressed the importance of changing consumer behavior, stating that “Food is the most direct democracy. In 2016, the top 10 food companies controlled over 90% of food production in Western industrial countries, but their top sales dropped $18 billion since 2009. That’s a behavior change among consumers. We can support that change by providing the healthy and sustainable food people are demanding.”

Shen also added that when it comes to communicating with consumers, celebrity chefs, investigative journalists and other storytellers are able to gain trust from consumers and convey meaningful messages that have the power to change consumer behavior.

On Meeting Nutritional Needs and Price Points

Liz suggested two ways we can meet the nutritional needs of consumers while keeping their price point in mind: address food waste and put “harvest dates” on products rather than expiration dates to let consumers know when their food was harvested. Shen added that being able to price food appropriately—neither too expensive nor too cheap—comes with scale.

This is an individual and societal problem. We’re fat, sick, and hungry at the same time. We need to tie price, quality, and scale together.

On Scale and Capital

Lastly, panelists were asked how scale and capital can be used to combat conventional chemical companies. Shen explained FoodFutureCo’s strategy which focuses on consumer behavior and identifies trends harnessed into a movement. By supporting purpose-driven entrepreneurs through long-term capital and impact investing, FoodFutureCo helps these ideas scale up and take hold in the mainstream.

Shen also expressed the importance of nutrition education. In a time when we have food products that haven’t decayed in decades, we must move past empty calories and food that is high in calories but low in nutrition. “This is an individual and societal problem. We’re fat, sick, and hungry at the same time. We need to tie price, quality, and scale together."

What's the magic behind the mushroom market?

What's the magic behind the mushroom market?

Chaga Elixir by Four Sigmatic | Image courtesy of Four Sigmatic

Meet the Mushroom Merchants

Medicinal mushrooms like reishi, chaga, and cordyceps are taking the U.S. market by storm. While these fungi have long been central components of Chinese medicine and eastern traditions, the growing interest in wellness and preventative care among U.S. consumers is opening up opportunities for entrepreneurs to introduce these ancient ingredients to a new generation of health enthusiasts.

A jar of reishi mushroom extract from Moon Juice promises that this “Nootropic Supershroom” (read: brain enhancing mushroom) is a “calming adaptogen known to help balance mood and support concentration.” A 1.3 oz jar retails for $48.

A 3-gram sachet of chaga elixir from Four Sigmatic is “packed with antioxidant properties that support your daily wellness, energy levels, and help to protect your immune functions.” In summation, it’s “like a forcefield in a cup.”  

Sun Potion sells a cobalt blue 3.5 oz jar of cordyceps under the banner that this “potent Yang Tonic” may support “oxygenation of the body, mental power, athletic endurance, sexual energy, muscle tone, and the immune system.” Put succinctly, it’s an “active adaptogen.”

So what, pray tell, is an adaptogen? According to tonic-plant and fungi purveyor Moodbeli, adaptogens are “organic plants and mushrooms that help the body adapt to physical, environmental and emotional stress.”

Aspirational Dust

Medicinal mushrooms are not new to the U.S. supplement market. Leading mushroom extract wholesaler Nammex has been producing medicinal mushroom extracts for upwards of 35 years. Recently, however, medicinal mushrooms—and adaptogens more broadly—have transformed into aspirational lifestyle products, propelled to new heights by celebrity wellness personalities like Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of the LA-based Moon Juice.

Bacon’s 2015 interview with Elle magazine about her morning routine (spoiler: it includes the “super endocrine, brain, immunity, and libido-boosting powers of Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca, and Shilajit resin”) helped Bacon and medicinal mushrooms capture the imaginations of biohackers and juice-enthusiasts nationwide.

The shelves of aspirational beauty/wellness stores (e.g., the West Village staple Cap Beauty) are lined with Moon Juice’s “Dusts” and mushroom extracts alongside a panoply of sleekly branded mushroom products from companies like Sun Potion, NordicNordic, and Four Sigmatic—all founded in the past nine years.

A Growing Market

Trendy brands selling medicinal mushrooms and other adaptogens have proliferated in U.S. markets recently, fueling American interest in staples of traditional Chinese medicine and Eastern traditions. As reported by Food Navigator, year-over-year sales for food and beverage products using medicinal mushrooms are increasing across the board, with Maitake and Cordyceps leading the charge at 811% and 230% growth respectively. Similarly, web searches for the benefits of these fungi have steadily increased over the past decade.

While consumers are eagerly researching and experimenting with these organic compounds on their own terms, the Western scientific community is still making up its mind. Assertions about the benefits of medicinal mushrooms are often hedged with the word “may”, or else an asterisk reminding customers that these claims have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Science and Skeptics

There is automatic skepticism towards any non-FDA regulated medicinal product, sold on lifestyle websites like Goop alongside tarot cards and rose quartz bottles that infuse water with positive energy. But knee-jerk doubt must be tempered by the fact that mushrooms contain beta glucans, polysaccharides found in the cell walls of fungi (as well as yeast, algae, and some plants), which are generally recognized as medicinally-active compounds and are used to help regulate the immune system and to combat high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer.

According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Maitake has shown anti-cancer effects in laboratory studies and is currently being studied for its potential to fight cancer in humans. Lab and animal studies have demonstrated that chaga mushrooms can inhibit cancer progression, activate certain types of immune cells, and potentially reduce inflammation. Similarly, lab tests suggest that reishi mushrooms could help to lower blood pressure and to support immune function. Cordyceps may help improve kidney function and may lower blood sugar levels. However, these results have yet to be demonstrated in controlled trials in humans.

The preliminary studies on many medicinal mushrooms are intriguing, but whether the sweeping claims papering mushroom extract jars in beauty shops would hold water in a randomized controlled trial with humans is an open question. Despite this, consumers and mushroom merchants aren’t waiting for the FDA’s stamp of approval. As the founder of Moodbeli, Krysia Zanjoc, told the New York Times, “A six-months-long FDA trial is great. But these have been proven remedies in human trials for five thousand years now.”

The Catch

However, without any regulation of these products, the authenticity and nutritional value of these mushroom supplements can be questionable. Whether a mushroom extract contains beta glucans and other active compounds depends on how the mushrooms were grown and how the extracts were produced. A 2017 report published in Nature demonstrated that only 5 of 19 samples of Reishi supplements from the United States contained beta glucans and other active compounds.

According to Jeff Chilton, the founder of Nammex, this is a widespread trend across the medicinal mushroom supplement industry. It is cheaper to manufacture ‘mushroom’ extracts from mycelium (read: vegetative precursor to mushrooms) grown on grain rather than from the fruiting bodies of mushrooms grown on wood. Grain-grown mycelium products typically include that grain as a filler in the final product and have significantly lower levels of beta glucans and other active compounds. Four Sigmatic explains that these mycelium products contain 50-80% grain with as much as 50% less beta glucan content than products which use extracts from mushrooms grown on wood.

In the absence of FDA regulation, it's up to companies to provide—and consumers to demand—comprehensive information about the sourcing and potency of mushroom extracts. Some companies, such as Nammex and Four Sigmatic, make a sincere effort to explain their sourcing and quality control process. However, many others offer only cursory, opaque adjectives like “organic” and “wildcrafted” in lieu of comprehensive, meaningful information.

In a culture increasingly preoccupied with wellness and reconnecting with the notion of food as medicine, the burgeoning medicinal mushroom market presents a massive opportunity at the nexus of entrepreneurship and health. The challenge is to bottle the ethereal, aspirational qualities of wellness culture while still maintaining a commitment to transparency around quality and sustainability.

The Good Food Debate – Tech vs. Tradition

The Good Food Debate – Tech vs. Tradition

This month, as we celebrate the graduation of Jewels of the Forest, Metabrew and Zoni Foods from our accelerator program, we asked our founders what social impact and culinary tradition mean to their work.

6 ways to eat seaweed that have nothing to do with sushi

6 ways to eat seaweed that have nothing to do with sushi

If a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered, then seaweed is ready for rebranding. This food source, underutilized in the Western world, is rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron and iodine. To cultivate, it requires no fresh water, no land, no chemical inputs, and no fertilizers, and it creates no nitrogen runoff. Furthermore, sea vegetables sequester carbon as they grow, helping to combat the effects of global warming and mitigate ocean acidification. When it comes to feeding a global population of 9.7 billion people in 2050, seaweed could play a large role in finding sustainable solutions.

Clean Food Needs Clean Money

Clean Food Needs Clean Money

Food from the “industrialized” food system is less nutritionally dense than organic, sustainably-grown food. Low-nutrient foods grown with synthetic chemicals have spread across the world, often targeted to the poor segment of the population in developed and emerging nations alike. This food and agriculture problem is too big to fix solely with philanthropic donations or government policy—even assuming a fully favorable policy environment and the effective deployment of philanthropic dollars. Here’s the good news: after decades of effective storytelling, public education, and advocacy by activists, we have a generation of Millennials embracing a broad-based behavioral shift toward healthy, sustainable food options.

Are DNA-driven diets the magic solution?

Are DNA-driven diets the magic solution?

In the era of biohacking, big data, and a worsening health crisis, startups are clamoring to personalize nutrition plans according to individual genetic profiles. It seems a perfect solution to the conflicting nutrition advice provided by today’s diet zeitgeist: mediterranean vs. ketogenic, paleo vs. plant-based, DASH Diet vs. Whole30. Which macronutrient is most evil? Which of these dietary equations will solve our personal and public health problems? The new answer, according to cutting edge companies like HabitNutrigenomix and DNAFit, is that there is no one-size-fits-all diet. Our metabolic responses differ according to our genes.

Healthy Soil 101: Hard to create, easy to destroy

Healthy Soil 101: Hard to create, easy to destroy

Fertile topsoil is a lively ecosystem, teeming with microorganisms and worm life. It has robust soil structure that retains water well and allows plant roots to penetrate, to breathe, and to forage for nutrients. 

But there’s a problem. We’re running through our supply of fecund soil in the U.S. at an alarming rate, with an estimated 996 metric tons of soil erosion over the past century. Conventional agriculture enables—and the tight margins of the farming industry incentivize—short-term bounty to the detriment of sustainable practices. Annual tilling, monocropping and chemical inputs promote an abundant harvest in the near term but ultimately catalyze soil erosion, cause the atmospheric release of stored nitrogen and carbon, compromise the soil structure, decrease water retention capacity, destroy the delicate microbial ecosystem, and make minced meat of the worms. Fostering healthy soil requires playing the long game. 

Have a Plant-Based New Year!

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Have a Plant-Based New Year!

Whether you have resolved to get healthier in 2018 or to lead a more earth-friendly lifestyle, choosing plant-based foods is a great place to start. It’s becoming increasingly easy to do so as the plant-based market shifts from niche to mainstream. Citing everything from personal wellness and public health to ethical concerns and environmental responsibility, a growing number of consumers are opting for plant-based products. Investors like Bill Gates and even Tyson Foods are betting on the plant-based businesses. According to recent Nielsen data commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute, plant-based food and beverage retail sales in the U.S. grew by 8.1 percent from August 2016 to August 2017. In contrast with the 0.2 percent decline of total food sales through the same channels, this growth is especially noteworthy.

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